Federal Support Has Helped Grow the Charter School Sector; Can it Help Improve It?

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Federal Support Has Helped Grow the Charter School Sector; Can it Help Improve It?

For 25 years, Federal Charter School Program (CSP) grants have provided financial assistance for the design and initial implementation of charter schools and the evaluation of their effects. With more than 7,000 charter schools educating 3.2 million students, there is little doubt that the program has been successful in seeding more charter schools: a 2015 report indicated that over 40 percent of operating charter schools have received CSP funds at some point.

But the charter school landscape looks drastically different than it did in 1994. The rate of new school openings has slowed. CSP funds have become mired in degrees of political opposition to charter growth at the federal and state level, as we saw earlier this month when New Hampshire turned down $46 million in CSP funds alleging any charter growth would strain its state education budget.

This begs the question: Should the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) be rethought for today’s charter school landscape?

There is a strong argument to be made that supporting high quality charter schools extends beyond just encouraging growth. In fact, when CSP was reauthorized in 2015 under the Every Student Succeeds Act, legislators expanded the purpose of federal investments in charter schools to include, among other things, supporting efforts to strengthen charter school authorizing and expanding opportunities for students with disabilities, English learners, and other traditionally underserved students.

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) further reimagines uses for CSP program grants, presenting a broader vision for the program where grants for charter growth are complemented with grants to improve the existing charter sector and address system-level challenges. This could include grants to charter schools and charter/district coalitions that support collaboration around structural issues like common enrollment systems or special education services. Grants could also support collaboratives for purchasing support and operational services, like food services, technology and supplies, or assisting small charter schools to achieve economies of scale. Additionally, the report recommends strengthening provisions that tie the grants to better governance and oversight.

Charter schools have effectively shifted the marker of a school’s success from compliance to academic outcomes, have spurred innovation in areas such as instruction and community involvement, and have provided important options for millions of students and families. That said, the sector faces some of the same structural and equity struggles that district schools face, including equity of access and outcomes, as well as the unique issues that come with operating at a smaller scale.

Meaningful federal investment in tackling these challenges could make a significant difference—at the national, state, and local level. Not only would these types of grants proposed by CAP help charter schools overcome structural and operational challenges, but they could also help charter schools and districts achieve the idea-sharing that was envisioned when charter schools were first proposed.

States may be able to achieve some of these objectives through existing grants; however, the share of CSP funds available for these purposes is only a small portion of that dedicated to new school openings or expansions. For instance, the State Entities grants require at least seven percent of funds to be used for state activities promoting quality charter practices. The National Dissemination Grants are designed to research and develop charter school best practices while developing partnerships to disseminate resources to a broad audience of practitioners. Core resources to strengthen charter school oversight—such as NACSA’s Core Performance Framework, Special Education Toolkit, and English Learners Toolkit—were developed using these grant funds. These two program line items account for approximately $18 million of spending annually, or four percent of annual appropriations for CSP.

The Charter Schools Program has proven to be an invaluable resource in growing the charter sector to what it is today, but must continue to evolve with the charter sector. CAP’s ideas are a welcome addition to the conversation of how to best use these federal funds to increase the number of high-quality public schools across the country.


Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at jasonz@qualitycharters.org

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